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Letters

Vol. 33 No. 2 · 20 January 2011

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A Spy in the Archives

I was surprised that Sheila Fitzpatrick in the memoir she wrote about her time as a student in the USSR in the 1960s didn’t think of the possibility that her friend and protector Igor Sats, in turning away one after another of her prospective suitors, was protecting not only her from additional KGB eyes, but those prospective suitors too, for if they were not all KGB agents, a friendship with her would have cost them their careers (LRB, 2 December 2010). His niece Irina was a clever woman: she knew that even though the 1960s and early 1970s were ‘vegetarian’ times in the Soviet Union compared to the Stalin era, any unreported visit by a foreigner to your home would mean huge trouble.

At the end of the piece, Fitzpatrick mentions a denunciation of her work by ‘V. Golant’. I wonder whether this is Veniamin Yakovlevich Golant, an Africanist who, in 1949, presented a PhD, Uprisings in German Colonies in Africa in 1904-8. He was awarded his degree, but then the Academic Council of Leningrad University’s history faculty was reconvened, and the degree withdrawn. Golant was accused of calling Africans ‘natives’, and even ‘blacks’. More important, he didn’t show ‘the beastly bared teeth of the predatory face of American imperialism’ – in Namibia in the early 20th century.

Later, Golant was allowed to defend his thesis again in a different faculty. The Academic Council had to be convened several times with more and more demands for corrections, but finally, three years on, Golant had his degree restored. He was unable to find a job in his field and lived from hand to mouth, partly by publishing books and articles on any marketable topic, but mostly by taking on translations. Among them were Rider Haggard’s stories, Ritter’s Shaka Zulu and the travelogues of the Czech traveller Emil Holub and the German naturalist Hans Schomburgk.

Golant spent most of his time in Leningrad’s Public Library, the ‘Publichka’, where, in the choking atmosphere of its smoking rooms, he spoke of his work and his life’s experiences to eager listeners – his younger colleagues. Golant’s story can be found in Apollon Davidson’s The Formative Years of African Studies in Russia: 1920s-60s, published in 2003.

Fitzpatrick compares the difficulties she experienced in getting to the archives to ‘getting married’. One should add, perhaps, that while it was just about as difficult for Russians as for foreigners to get to the archives, it was almost beyond the bounds of possibility for a foreigner to get married to a Russian, though nothing could have been easier than a marriage between ordinary Russians – except perhaps a divorce.

Irina Filatova
Cape Town

Sheila Fitzpatrick’s ‘A Spy in the Archives’ revived memories of similar adventures experienced by my late husband, Henry Glade, in 1970-71, as he endeavoured to research the reception of German literature in the Soviet Union under the auspices of the Academy of Sciences and the Gorky Institute of World Literature. Because part of his work delved into what turned out to be the politically sensitive protocol for the selection and translation of German work, Henry received little assistance from the director of the Gorky Institute’s German Division. He even called Henry a spy to dissuade specialists from working with him.

Fortunately, before our first trip to the Soviet Union in 1966, the German author Heinrich Böll recommended that Henry contact Lev Kopelev, the critic and Germanist, whom Böll called ‘the hub of the Soviet intelligentsia’. Lev turned out to be Henry’s version of Sheila Fitzpatrick’s Igor Sats. He knew everyone and the sources for almost everything Henry needed for his work, as well as a broad range of writers, artists, musicians and actors, to whom he introduced us. Like Lev, many of these talented people had ‘sat’ in camps, and quite a few were considered to be ‘dissidents’ by the official Soviet cultural elite. Like Fitzpatrick, we were wrapped in the warmth of their kindness, friendship and hospitality during our short stays between 1966 and 1975. We paid the price for these non-official contacts when the Soviet authorities refused to grant a visa to Henry in 1976 and me in 1977.

Shirley Glade
North Manchester, Indiana

Gay Comparisons

Charles Nicholl mentions the possibility, proposed by Edmond Malone, that Theobald borrowed the line in Antony and Cleopatra ‘lay his gay comparisons apart’ when he wrote ‘Throw all my gay comparisons aside’ (LRB, 2 December 2010). It’s complicated, because the word Shakespeare possibly intended, as Pope suggested, was ‘caparisons’, meaning ‘dress’ or ‘ornaments’. In Double Falsehood it looks as if Henriquez decides to dispose of the inhibiting signs of wealth to gain Violante, and has caparisons in mind. Did Theobald realise that there was a textual crux here, or has he blindly repeated a corrupted word in writing pastiche verse? Or had the corruption taken place before it even reached Theobald?

Bernard Richards
Oxford

Divan/Diwan

Marina Warner in her otherwise fine article on Edward Said and the West-Eastern Divan has a few things backwards (LRB, 16 December 2010). The word divan, which Warner rightly states was ‘a novelty in German’ in Goethe’s day, did not originally mean ‘cushion’ in Arabic and then come to be associated with the members of the ruler’s court and, later, books. First, the word is not Arabic, but Persian. Second, diwan (as it is pronounced in Arabic) did not originally mean ‘cushion or couch’: in the first centuries of Islam, diwan and its related verbal forms referred to the process of recording, collecting and collating all kinds of information in writing. It was in this sense of a record that the word was used for the roll-call of soldiers in the early Muslim armies, then by the caliphs of Baghdad for the particular bureaus of government, and later by the administrators of the Ottoman sultans for their own administrative organs. In the course of time, the term came to refer not only to these units of government, but also to the hall or chamber in which the particular section of the administration held its sessions. Residues of the term’s widespread administrative usage can be seen in the Spanish, French and Italian terms (aduana, douane, dogana) for the customs house. According to the OED, the association of diwan/divan with a couch or cushion in English first occurred at the beginning of the 18th century, when English visitors witnessed Ottoman officials seated on long, cushioned benches during administrative sessions. It seems likely that a traveller confusing the practice of sitting on a cushioned bench with the name of the hall in which he sat was the first person to use the word in this way.

Maurice Pomerantz
New York University

Let us pay

John Lanchester isn’t quite correct in stating that the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal are the only exceptions to the general rule that paywalls cannot be made to work (LRB, 16 December 2010). The Racing Post offers an excellent example of a successful paywall, both for the punter (£8.95 per month, as opposed to £55.80 for the newspaper) and, obviously, for the publishers, who have been able to increase subscriptions by 13 per cent this year. But it does illustrate an important point. Paywalls will work if the newspaper is, first, very specialised, and second, contains information which is only of use on that day. One can read other newspapers several days in arrears, but every punter knows it’s not much use reading the form a day later.

John Harringay
London SE15

So, according to John Lanchester the attacks on the BBC by the Murdochs are ‘overtly self-interested’. Does that also invalidate them? And why does that highlight ‘how little BSkyB spends on creating worthwhile content’? Worth whose while? I am watching live Ashes cricket as I write, and will then move on to live India v. South Africa. Not on the BBC, which despite receiving £50 billion in licence fees over the years has never bothered to show a single ball of live overseas Test cricket, but on BSkyB. Very much worth my while, and many others’ – 55 per cent of UK households subscribe to Sky content.

Perhaps John Lanchester means ‘UK-originated content’? If we look at just the BBC’s licence fee income of £3.6 billion, rather than the total income of £4.6 billion cited by Lanchester, the BBC claims to have spent just over half (£1.86 billion) on its TV channels. However, Ofcom calculates that the BBC spent £1.23 billion on first-run TV origination in 2009, and £1.36 billion in total on network TV content – a decline of £200 million since 2005, despite a significant rise in revenue.

By comparison, Sky received about £3.3 billion in TV subscriptions. Out of that, it spent £1.9bn on content. Of course, a large chunk was for licensing third-party product (such as Hollywood movies), but the biggest part – nearly £1 billion – was for sport. The thousands of people who work on these programmes do not regard themselves as doing ‘naff all’, by comparison with the BBC’s steady diet of Homes under the Hammer, Bargain Hunt, Flog It! etc. Nor do the millions who watch the programmes they make.

BSkyB’s news and arts output certainly bears comparison with the BBC’s (and wins more industry awards), and if it competes only marginally in terms of drama, comedy and documentaries, allowance has to be made for a broadcaster trying to deliver something distinctive to customers who choose to pay, rather than imitate the formulaic programmes already available on terrestrial television. Meanwhile, BBC3 (which cost licence fee payers £115 million last year), this week broadcast 94 programmes, of which 89 were repeats.

David Elstein
London SW15

Maligned

The reasons David Runciman gives for the two rural independent MPs’ backing of Julia Gillard after last summer’s Australian election are flawed (LRB, 16 December 2010). ‘The rationale,’ he writes, ‘was straightforward: they were able to get far more out of her, in the form of money, jobs and all the other little titbits that a government has at its disposal. They also believed that her relative weakness made her a more trustworthy partner … she had much more reason to be frightened of the voters.’

Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, the two rural independents in question, bargained with both sides on a reform agenda that would include less confrontation in Parliament, more open government, and new approaches to tackling climate change, water problems and refugees. Both declined to be ministers. Oakeshott briefly contemplated the speakership but did not pursue it. There was no suggestion of pork-barrelling – no promises of schools, roads or hospitals specifically for their electorates. They both supported the government’s broadband agenda because they hoped it would benefit the regions generally. They also clearly indicated their distaste for the populist oversimplifications of the opposition’s campaign.

Barry Jones
University of Melbourne

Mistakes

There are two young American avant-gardist writers, Tao Lin and Tan Lin (LRB, 6 January). In my review of the Bush memoir, I wrote ‘Tan Lin’ when I meant ‘Tao Lin’. I may become a character in Tao Lin’s next novel.

Eliot Weinberger
New York

Bee Wilson lists some famous ‘mistress’ couples and includes Maria Callas and Battista Meneghini (LRB, 6 January). Meneghini was actually Callas’s husband; they married in 1949, and she called herself Maria Meneghini Callas for some years. She was not the ‘other woman’ in relation to Meneghini but to Onassis.

Huw Kyffin
Canterbury

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